Toni Morrison

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Morrison, Toni 1931–

Morrison is an American novelist and editor. Noted for her sensitive portrayals of black families, Morrison has been praised for her stylistic freshness and authentic dialogue. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.)

Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye is a novel portraying in poignant terms the tragic condition of blacks in a racist America. In her criticism of American life, she has structured her work in triadic patterns beginning with the reproduction of a passage three different times as the first three paragraphs of the work. Other triadic patterns emerge in her presentation of the tragedy of black life in relation to blacks, whites, and God or existential circumstances worked out through her thematic approach involving the problems of sex, racism, and love (or the dearth of love); in the aspect of ritual expressed through the scapegoat mechanism with the cat, the dog, and the girl, Pecola, as agents; and in the typology in the characterization affecting the three black family women—Geraldine, Mrs. MacTeer, and Mrs. Breedlove—and the three black prostitutes—The Maginot Line, China, and Poland. The pattern is concretized by the dictum that is generally accepted in the social milieu of the novel, a dictum which is clearly expressed by Calvin Hernton: "if you are white you are all right; if you are brown you can stick around; but if you are black … get back."

The opening paragraph of the novel in its simplicity and clarity could have been taken from a primer. The paragraph deals, quite ironically it turns out, with a white American ideal of the family unit—cohesive, happy, with love enough to spare to pets. It is a fairy-tale world, a dream world, childlike in extreme—it is desirable, but for man, particularly the black man, it is unattainable. (p. 112)

After the orderliness of the first paragraph, the same passage is reproduced as the second paragraph but without punctuation marks. The lack of punctuation shows some disorder in a world that could be orderly; however, the world is still recognizable….

The third paragraph is a repetition of the first but without punctuation and without world division, and it demonstrates the utter breakdown of order among the Breedloves. Thus we have three possible family situations: first Geraldine's (a counterfeit of the idealized white family), further down the MacTeers', and at the bottom the Breedloves'. They are all manifestations of the social concept of the family, just as the first three paragraphs are identical except that circumstances have changed the premise implicit in the ideal of the first paragraph. The Mother-Father-Dick-Jane concept is finally transmuted to the Mrs. Breedlove-Cholly-Sammy-Pecola situation. The transmutation is Morrison's indirect criticism of the white majority for the black family's situation and for what is taught to the black child in school, as evidenced by the primer paragraph, that in no way relates to the child's reality. The black man is attacked emotionally from childhood, living in two impossible worlds: the fairy tale world of lies when he is in contact with the white world and the equally incredible, grim world of black life.

The first section of The Bluest Eye, "Autumn," opens with a sentence which reflects the disorder and moral chaos of the novel: "Nuns go by as quiet as lust, and drunken men with sober eyes sing in the lobby of the Greek hotel" (emphasis added). Here "nuns" with an appropriate attribute, "quiet," are juxtaposed to "lust," a word not usually associated with nuns. Furthermore, the "drunken men" "sing" (a not unusual event) but their eyes are surprisingly "sober." The sentence opens up a strange world, one where expectations remain unfulfilled and contradictions are rife. These incongruities exist either because of man's oppression of irresponsibility against man or else because of existential circumstances. (p. 113)

The Bluest Eye has a structural resemblance to Baldwin's Go Tell It on the...

(The entire section is 2,790 words.)